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'Soldiers come home with addiction problems and PTSD, but there's no real support'

More needs to be done to help veterans who previously served in the Defence Forces, the Organisation of National Ex-Service Personnel has said.

Diarmuid Higgins, President of ONE
Diarmuid Higgins, President of ONE

MORE SUPPORTS NEED to be put in place to help veterans who previously served in the Irish Defence Forces, the Organisation of National Ex-Service Personnel (ONE) has said.

ONE said many veterans experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other mental health issues, and in some cases alcoholism and homelessness.

ONE runs 15 support centres around the country and three homeless hostels – in Dublin, Donegal and Athlone. The charity is currently building a fourth hostel in Cobh, Co Cork.

Diarmuid Higgins, President of ONE, served in the Navy for 21 years. He said he was “lucky” as he came out with a trade – he was a trained electrician – and was able to find other work.

Many other veterans struggle to find another job and, if they leave before completing 21 years’ service, don’t get a pension.

Higgins (60) joined the Navy when he was just 17 years old and, despite his skillset, initially struggled to adjust to civilian life when he retired in 1998 aged 38.

“When I came out I was convinced I was obsolete and hadn’t kept up with advances in ‘civilian street’. It took me a while to adjust. I was afraid that I didn’t know what I was going into.

“I think a lot of people who come out [of the Defence Forces] don’t realise the skills that they have, that is something that we have to try and address.”

Higgins said veterans’ pride can also stop them from seeking help they may need, such as counselling.

“People have come out with problems – PTSD, addiction problems, relationship problems – and there’s no real support there for them and they just fall between the cracks.

“One of our biggest problems is our pride, we think ‘We were soldiers, we were air men, I can manage, I don’t need help’, instead of actually thinking ‘Yes, I need help’.”

Higgins said financial problems and other stresses, as well as the drinking culture that was once common in the Defence Forces, result in many veterans turning to alcohol to cope.

Higgins is a recovering alcoholic. There were bars on all the naval ships during most of his career – something that is no longer the case.

He sought help in the late 1980s, while still in the Navy, and said he got support because of a particular doctor within the Defence Forces.

Higgins said he was the exception and not the rule as, for many years, people who had alcohol problems were quietly let go from the Defence Forces and not given any counselling or support.

“Some of my bosses kept telling me that I didn’t have a problem, that I just wanted to get out of going to sea, which wasn’t the case. I needed help. Once I did get my addiction under control, I did go back to see.”

Higgins said that in the past when some people told their colleagues they had an alcohol addiction, they were told to “lighten up and have a drink”.

“Thankfully it’s no longer the culture in the Defence Forces, but when some of us joined up or were serving, alcohol played a big part in the culture.

“I don’t think I’m giving up any secrets to say a lot of people were let go from the Defence Forces when they shouldn’t have been let go. The attitude was, ‘Well now he’s gone, the problem is gone’ – but that has changed now, the services are there and people are supported.

“Being an alcoholic, you have to decide yourself that you have a problem, no one can tell you, and it took a while for me to cop on to this. I eventually discovered what everyone else knew.

“Thankfully that doctor gave me the strength and the help that I needed, as did my wife and family.”

Homelessness

Marriage breakdown is fairly common among veterans, Higgins noted, as relationships were put under pressure from a person being away from their family for weeks or months at a time.

A number of veterans also experience homelessness at some point in their lives.

“Maybe not homelessness in the sense of sleeping on the streets, but they might be couch-surfing or maybe they’ve had to move in with their children or move into overcrowded accommodation which is unsuitable and they want to be independent,” Higgins explained.

ONE plans to open its latest hostel for veterans in Cobh later this year. A building that once a social welfare office is currently being refurbished.

Higgins said the building work will cost about €550,000. The Department of Defence and Defence Forces are providing financial assistance to complete the project.

However, more money needs to be raised to furnish the bedrooms. Five ensuite bedrooms will be in the hostel and it will cost about €3,000 to furnish each room. Higgins said local businesses have agreed to pay for some of the rooms already.

20210401_160827 The location of the new ONE hostel in Cobh Source: Diarmuid Higgins

The centre in Cobh will also have a veteran support centre, which Higgins described as “a cross between a men’s shed and a women’s shed and citizens advice”.

“It will be a place where veterans can come in, meet old comrades, have a cup of coffee, have a chat. We will also have a welfare officer in place, who will deal with any issues that veterans need to have addressed. He is a counsellor and can point people in the right direction,” Higgins explained.

The idea of ONE’s hostels is to provide accommodation and other supports for veterans until they get back on their feet and can move into their own accommodation.

Higgins said the vast majority of veterans who live in the hostels for a period end up in their own accommodation.

“We have a 95% success rate of getting people who stay in hostels back into mainstream living. We give them the help they need, we build them up, and then they’re ready to go back into the mainstream again.”

Higgins said the majority of the veterans ONE helps are male but he and others are making a conscious effort to get more female veterans involved.

“We are attempting to redress the balance to attract more females into the organisation,” he said, adding that, much like the Defence Forces itself, some people view ONE as “an old boys’ club”.

“We’re trying to dispel that myth, and we’re working to involve female veterans and they are coming forward.” slowly.”

Minister for Veterans

Higgins believes there should be a Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, separate to the Defence Minister. He said veterans in Ireland aren’t treated as well as, or respected as much as, their counterparts in the UK.

“Across the water, they have all the support. Yes, they have been to wars but some of us have gone through the same thing and we’re just ignored.”

Higgins said ONE has helped veterans who served during the Troubles in Northern Ireland to get back on their feet.

“We have people here who served during the Troubles, but no-one ever said thanks. The soldiers were on ditches around the border, we were looking for guns and drugs.

“I think that needs to be addressed. People need to realise that the soldiers, the veterans, have served this country.

“They have gone out of their way to help, they’ve never said no – for the floods, the snow, even the rubbish collection. They could have said, ‘Well that’s not my job’, but they didn’t. Now with Covid they are stepping in again – soldiers, veterans and reserves.

“They’re taken for granted. People think, ‘Oh they’re the Defence Forces, they’ll be there, they’ll do what they’re told. I think that’s something we need to address.”

FB_IMG_1617290349371 (1) Eddie McCarthy, Branch Treasurer; Diarmuid Higgins Branch Secretary; Mick McCarthy Branch President; Pat Feen Branch Chairman, outside the new hostel in Cobh. Source: Diarmuid Higgins

ONE costs close to €1 million a year to run, and the charity receives some funding from the Defence Forces and the Department of Defence.

However, the organisation still needs to fundraise to make up the difference. One of its biggest fundraisers is the annual Fuschia Collection. However, on-street sales of the flowers have not been able to take place for the last two years because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Everyone knows what the poppy is,”, Higgins said, referring to the flower worn to commemorate British soldier who have died. “We’re trying to promote what the fuschia is,” he added.

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‘Valued public service’

When asked about the support services available to veterans, a spokesperson for the Defence Forces said: “Óglaigh na hÉireann provide a range of support services to serving members and their families through our Personnel Support Service.

“Óglaigh na hÉireann also provides routine guidance to its members to assist with a transition from military life to civilian life. This guidance centers around education in areas such as mental and physical health, personal finances, pensions, tax and entry to the jobs market.”

The spokesperson noted that the Defence Forces Benevolent Fund is “a registered charity operated from within the Defence Forces which provides assistance to personnel who are experiencing difficult times”.

ONE receives support from this particular fund.

The spokesperson added that the Personnel Support Service “can provide limited support directly to veterans, mainly through the provision of information, guidance and signposting to services within the community”.

“There are also three main veteran’s organisations within the state, ONE, IUNVA and ARCO, each providing supports to veterans in different ways. These organisations are not part of the Defence Forces but maintain close links.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Defence told The Journal that the department “recognises the valued public service that was given to the State by retired members of the Defence Forces”.

They said the department also “recognises the valuable work that ONE undertakes for veterans and will continue to work closely with all Veterans Associations in support of their work”.

“The Minister for Defence and Department officials hold regular meetings with three Veterans’ Associations, the Irish United Nations Veterans Association (IUNVA), the Organisation of National Ex-Service Personnel (ONE) and the Association of Retired Commissioned Officers (ARCO). The Veterans’ Associations raise issues of concern to their members at these meetings,” the spokesperson said.

“As part of the supports currently offered to veterans, the Department has Service Level Agreements in place with ONE and IUNVA which set out the services the Department provides to these Associations. Under the terms of these SLAs, the Department provides financial support by way of annual subventions to ONE and IUNVA to support their work and the range of services they offer to ex-service personnel.”

The spokesperson said the department and the Defence Forces “have worked with ONE to bring to fruition their plans for a network of 15 Veteran Support Centres (VSCs) around the country and, where possible, have permitted the use of premises in functioning barracks to accommodate the VSC”.

“In addition, there is a programme for government commitment to further support the rollout of additional centres.”

The spokesperson added that the department has also secured total funding of €300,000 awarded under the Dormant Accounts Fund Action Plan 2020 “to assist ONE and IUNVA with specific projects”, in addition to the annual grants these organisations already receive.

More information about ONE can be read here.

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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